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‘Elsewhere’ is a chilling, eerily current novel about motherhood

Alexis Schaitkin’s fantastical tale takes a page from Margaret Atwood to explore society’s role in the maternal experience

(Celadon; Ashley Weeks Cart)
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Framing motherhood as an affliction might, understandably, provoke outrage. But this is one of the disarming virtues of a fantasy novel: It can confront social norms without directly appearing to do so. In her brooding second novel, “Elsewhere,” Alexis Schaitkin delves into a subgenre that might be called Domestic Dystopia, well-mined by writers like Shirley Jackson and Margaret Atwood.

The book is set in a town “high above the rest of the world” — a “cool, damp place” with an unusual weather pattern: “Every day at dusk the clouds appeared, gathering and thickening until they covered us with their beautiful, sinister white.”

Something stranger than perpetual dampness marks this remote town, as Vera, the novel’s heroine and narrator, soon reveals. While the “climate was ever-mild and pleasant,” the townspeople suffer from something extreme, an “affliction” that affects only mothers — usually young ones. For reasons left mysterious, every so often one of them vanishes, evaporating into those omnipresent clouds.

‘Saint X’ is more than the story of a missing girl

Much of the first half of “Elsewhere” is devoted to this phenomenon, one that, like speculative fiction itself, turns a familiar human concern into something otherworldly. In this case, the town’s affliction magnifies a common fear among young mothers that they are being erased by motherhood.

According to Vera, “in a typical year we lost about three or four mothers,” including her own some time before the story begins. One morning a mother will be “gone.” Her family sits outside the house, while other mothers and fathers hurry inside to seize her personal effects and to hunt out all photographs with her image. A crowd gathers in the front yard to watch a bonfire of those photographs, while the woman’s belongings are carted off to a kind of consignment store. As a result, her clothes and accessories live on, worn proudly by former friends and neighbors, while she is scrubbed from collective memory. It’s unclear why the evaporated mothers must be forgotten; just as it’s unclear how, exactly, they vanish.

What is clear is that the town’s affliction is not only accepted but cherished. A woman who does not become a mother is “safe, but she was also deprived.” Motherhood is seen as providing a woman’s keenest joys, notwithstanding the ubiquitous risk of extinction. “Our affliction was terrible,” Vera acknowledges, “but it was not as terrible as living without it.” This conviction is tested when Vera becomes a mother herself.

Sealed in by those dank clouds, Vera and her “new mom group” wait to see who will dematerialize, watching each other obsessively for predictive “signs,” which can range from being too attentive to their children to negligence, to anything in between. Vera feels especially endangered, having lost her own mother so young, worried that whatever made her mother susceptible to the affliction lurks within her, as well. Does loving their children too much leave certain women more vulnerable to disappearance? Or the realization that love cannot protect her family from loss?

Aside from its affliction, the town stays uneasily relatable, even given its Amish overtones, herds of wet goats and Bavarian-sounding street names. Children go to school, perform in musical recitals, grow up to become dentists or shop owners or manager of the Alpina hotel; they marry, have children of their own. World-building often requires an almost-realism, depending on a few unusual objects and habits to indicate larger, more pervasive differences. Early in “Elsewhere,” for example, Vera mentions “skinfruit,” somewhere between a fig and fleshy pomegranate, eaten voraciously by young mothers, who also use its vines to weave baskets. Otherwise, the town’s eeriest feature is its isolation.

Convinced that where they live is lovelier, happier than anywhere else, the residents can’t imagine leaving, though there is a train, by which they receive supplies and export those baskets, and they get few visitors, despite having a hotel. Strangers always fail to grasp the importance of the town’s affliction. “Their lives were ruled by a simpler, thinner calculus,” notes Vera somberly. “They didn’t have our affliction so they could not learn what it taught us, did not possess what it gave us.”

Why is ‘The Push’ so popular? Perhaps because it plays into a mother’s worst fears.

Schaitkin, author of “Saint X” (2020), is at her sharpest and darkest when depicting the anxieties and self-justifications of new mothers, their fears of being judged as unnatural or inept, particularly by other mothers, the standard of maternal excellence being as impossibly high in this misty place as everywhere else.

Although, frankly, the reader also struggles to understand the lessons of the affliction or why no one questions it. Even when Vera becomes an outsider herself, with a chance to gain some perspective, she doesn’t seem fully awake to the affliction’s weirdness or grow suspicious about its origins. (The local men, for instance, seem a bit too resigned to the possibility of losing their wives.) Like those oppressive clouds, the narrative is at times opaque, and perhaps some occasional humor would have provided a clarifying breeze. Still, at this particular moment, a novel that dramatizes the perils of motherhood, and challenges the idea that it should be all-important, could not be more relevant.

Suzanne Berne’s latest novel, “The Blue Window,” will be published in January.

Elsewhere

By Alexis Schaitkin

Celadon Books, 240 pp. $26.99

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